Spenser Confidential

Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Sean O’Keefe & Brian Helgeland (based on the novel Wonderland by Ace Atkins)
Stars: Mark Wahlberg (Spenser), Winston Duke (Hawk), Alan Arkin (Henry), Iliza Shlesinger (Cissy Davis), Michael Gaston (Captain Boylan), Bokeem Woodbine (Driscoll), Marc Maron (Wayne Cosgrove), James DuMont (Bentwood), Austin Post (Squeeb), Colleen Camp (Betty), Hope Olaide Wilson (Letitia)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2020
Country: U.S.
Spenser Confidential
Spenser Confidential

Spenser Confidential is loosely based on one of the dozens of novels in the popular Spenser series created by author Robert B. Parker, who wrote 40 novels featuring the titular Boston-based private detective between 1973 and 2011. In the late 1980s the series was adapted as a television series starring Robert Urich titled Spenser for Hire (1985–1988), and Joe Mantegna played the character in four made-for-television movies on A&E between 1999 and 2001. Since Parker’s death in 2010, the novel series has been continued by Ace Atkins, who has written another eight novels, including Wonderland (2013), the one on which this film—the first adapted from the series in nearly two decades—is based.

It is somewhat odd that Parker’s character has been pulled off the shelves and dusted off for a new go-round since Spenser Confidential deviates so far from the source. Those looking for a close adaptation will certainly be disappointed, as everything I have read about it (not having turned any of the pages of the novels myself) suggests that this new film has nothing in common with Parker’s novel series beyond the names of the characters and the setting. Instead, screenwriters Sean O’Keefe (a first-timer with a pair of video games credits to his name) and Brian Helgeland (the veteran Oscar winner for L.A. Confidential) have cooked up something that is largely different from the novels, but keeping close to the modern style of action-comedy movies, delivering one-liners and stinging punches in roughly equal measure.

Spenser Confidential marks the fifth collaboration between star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg (their most recent was 2018’s covert military thriller Mile 22), and they clearly have their minds aligned. Berg has a good understanding of Wahlberg’s strengths as a movie star, particularly his charismatic ability to be simultaneously larger than life and down to earth. Wahlberg’s Spenser is a middle-age blue-collar Bostonian you’d love to grab a beer with, but he is also utterly unphased when faced with all kinds of mortal danger. In the film’s opening scene, where we find him on his last day in prison, he nonchalantly faces down a whole gang of white supremacists (led by tatted musician Post Malone) and is more annoyed than pained that one of them sticks a shank in his side. He is both human and fantastically superheroic.

Spenser, who had been a police officer, has been in prison for five years because he assaulted the corrupt Captain Boylan (Michael Gaston), whom he suspected of covering up crimes and then found beating his wife. He pled guilty, did his time like a man, and now nurtures the simple dream of becoming a truck driver while avoiding his hyperbolic ex-girlfriend, Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger), who did not take his being sent to prison well. The problem is that Spenser has a hard time leaving things alone, and when Captain Boylan is brutally murdered and it appears that there is a massive conspiracy of organized crime festering in the city, he can’t help but get involved. He is aided in his endeavors by Henry (Alan Arkin), a close friend and mentor who gives him a place to stay after he gets out of the joint, and Hawk (Winston Duke), a hulking mixed martial-arts fighter-in-trainer and his roommate at Henry’s brownstone (which happens to be on the same Dorchester street where Wahlberg grew up as a troubled youth).

Much of the film’s pleasure derives from the comedic back and forth; Spenser is just tightly wound enough in his desire to make sure justice is served that he bounces off Hawk’s general nonchalance. Wahlberg and Duke have a palpable chemistry, and it’s too bad they couldn’t find themselves in a more interesting story. Too much of Spenser Confidential’s mystery plays like warmed-up leftovers—stuff we have seen far too many times before. Berg, who knows his way around macho action scenes, clearly wants the film to ooze with an old-school vibe, and he cranks the soundtrack with plenty of ’70s and ’80s guitar rock to smooth out the rough edges. There is some fun to be had here, especially for those who appreciate the simpler pleasures of the action film, but don’t expect that this will kick off a new series.

Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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